a required taste for the pretentious as all get out





December 09, 2002, 4:51 pm

Because we're reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings next, I'm having my students write a personal narrative about a journey that they've completed in their lifetime. I've given this assignment three times to roughly 300 students, and I haven't yet been prepared for the stories that I've heard.

Parents' divorces. Dead brothers/sisters. Abuse. Car accidents. All very, very tragic stories, I've always thought, but they're peppered with the odd making-the-soccer-team or when-my-cheerleading-squad-won-first-place-at-our meet to make them somewhat bearable.

As each student works on his/her draft, I meet with each kid individually to assess if his/her topic is do-able, if they're on the right track with description, if they have all of their commas in the right places, etc. As they work in peer revision groups, I meet with them again to scan their 2nd draft and to make my final corrections before they go to a final copy.

Today I got a bit more than I expected on a paper.

Adam is a bright-eyed sweetie pie that wears wire-rim glasses and has a nice smile. He's awfully quiet, but will volunteer every once in a while when he feels confident. He has a good heart; he's kind to his classmates, and he saved me a cookie from his Spanish food day just "because you looked down today, Ms. B."

His paper started, "I first noticed something was wrong when my mom turned left instead of right in the middle of the road." It goes on to mention several bouts of "mistakes" that his mom makes: putting laundry in the dryer twice, wearing two different shoes with her pajamas to go out, forgetting Adam from school. One day, his mother forgot where they lived, and he had to show her the way home.

Adam's mother has a rare form of Alzeheimer's disease; extremely rare considering she wasn't barely fifty.

"I was ten, and I wanted to have a mom, but I ended up having to play dad along with my own dad. How many moms do you know that cry when their sons won't give them candy?"

Adam's mother doesn't recognize him now, and she hasn't for two years.

"There are lots of things that I would like for her to see me do, but she can't. Even if she could, she wouldn't know who I was or why I was special to her."

"People wonder sometimes why I'm so quiet, or why I'm always daydreaming, it's because I can't talk about this. No one I know understands, and I can't make them understand. Thank you, Ms. B., for giving me this assignment. I didn't realize how writing can set your emotions free."

As I sat reading Adam's essay, I teared up. He looked at me, patiently, expectantly, waiting for me to say something. The bell rang.

I smiled, "Adam," I said, "this is the best example of 'Show--don't tell' writing I've ever seen anyone your age write."

He beamed.

"Thank you for sharing this with me," I said, my voice cracking a little.

"Thanks for letting me write this, Ms. B," he said, smiled, and left for his next class.

I suppose the therapeutic power of writing should never be underestimated by anyone. I'm a bit stuck though, wondering how I can make a child who has gone through so much already think that Shakespeare is important. How can I expect him or anyone with similar background experiences see any relevance in what I teach to their tribulations that plague them at home? I, for once, don't have a snappy answer, and I, for once, feel as though I've been taught something instead.

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